In recent days, leaders of Israel's political center-left have managed to generate a measure of public interest in an alternative to the moribund negotiations with the Palestinians. It began with the highly publicized meeting in Paris between former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sept. 21. After the meeting, Olmert said that only Abbas is able to implement the two-state solution.
Several days later, on Sept. 25, an opposition leader, Tzipi Livni, also met with Abbas, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting, at a New York City hotel. This event, too, generated major headlines in Israel, largely due to Livni’s aides, who shared information about the meeting with the press.
Livni reportedly implored the despondent Palestinian leader not to walk away from negotiations and encouraged him to resume a dialogue with the United States to push forward the two-state solution to the conflict with Israel. Livni told Abbas that seclusion, one-sided moves against Israel and wanton destruction would be an eternal tragedy. According to Livni, such steps “may lead to deterioration on the ground, a loss of control, and the loss of the two-state solution.” Livni further urged the aging Palestinian leader to mobilize to resolve the situation in Gaza and return to discussions rather than attacking the United States. She also said the Israeli government should conduct talks with moderate states in the region.
Olmert and Livni are among the top leaders of the Israeli center-left. To test the waters of a two-state solution, they left their longtime political home in the Likud in 2005. Along with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, they established Kadima (Hebrew for “forward”), which presented a clear vision: two states for two people based on the 1967 borders. It derived its power from its leadership hailing from the Likud. The party eventually crashed, dealing the two-state vision a severe blow.
Both Olmert and Livni have at different stages conducted negotiations with the Palestinian leadership, so they know Abbas well. Livni did so as foreign minister in several governments, most recently during 2013-14. During Livni's tenure as justice minister in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s third government, she represented Israel in talks with the Palestinians led by US Secretary of State John Kerry for the Barack Obama administration.
Olmert held talks with the Palestinians during his tenure as prime minister, and in the waning days of his term he proposed far-reaching compromises to the Palestinian leader, including the division of Jerusalem into an Israeli and a Palestinian capital. Since the summer of 2014 — when the negotiations led by Kerry and Livni collapsed, and war broke out between Israel and Hamas in Gaza — the two-state option has been severely undermined, including by senior center-left leaders trying to mirror the Likud in a bid to siphon off some of its more moderate voters. This process of delegitimization peaked after Donald Trump became US president and adopted a lenient attitude toward Israeli construction in West Bank settlements.
The past few days represent a milestone, no less in the struggle for Israeli public opinion regarding the conflict with the Palestinians. Olmert and Livni, in cooperation with Abbas, are once again moving it toward center stage.
No less interesting, of course, are the aggressive reactions from the right. One after another, ministers and Knesset members from the right-wing parties have given interviews, tweeted and written Facebook posts pounding Olmert and Livni with harsh words. “Contemptible” was the word Tourism Minister Yariv Levin chose to describe the Livni-Abbas meeting in an interview with Israel Army Radio.
Deputy Minister Michael Oren, from the center-right Kulanu and a former ambassador to the United States, claimed that Olmert and Livni's actions would have run afoul of the law in any reasonably progressive country for conducting independent policy against their government. Oren also said the Livni-Abbas meeting shows a great deal about the Israeli left: “They strive for a meeting with a Holocaust denier, a man who delivers anti-Semitic speeches and funds the murderers of Jews, prosecutes Israel in The Hague and, above all, rejects peace. Livni is simply running after him.”
On Twitter, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan accused Olmert of serving the interests of the Palestinians against the State of Israel, “causing Israel damage in the international arena,” and against the United States. The attacks from the right flooding social media have served as proof to the center-left that more than a few Israelis are still conscious of the two-state idea. In fact, the proof is in the disproportionate reactions from the right to meetings with an elected Palestinian leader. After all, Netanyahu himself has negotiated with Abbas on the basis of his landmark 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, in which he officially recognized the two-state formula.
The question of who benefits from these attacks against the left is significant given that Israel likely faces an upcoming election campaign ahead of snap elections, possibly as soon as early 2019. The answer, of course, is the Likud and Netanyahu at its head.
The center-left has, however, raised its head. It believes that it has proven that Abbas is willing to talk, contrary to Netanyahu’s mantra that Israel has no partner for peace, signaling to the public that there is an alternative to additional bloodshed. Livni and Olmert lend credibility to this alternative. They are not backbenchers, which is why Netanyahu flexed his muscles and sent his associates to undermine Olmert’s move.
According to a statement attributed to Likud sources, “Olmert — who offered Abbas the Western Wall — has now turned into his faithful mouthpiece. … The reason for his extreme demands is not peace but rather the elimination of the State of Israel.”
The Likud, especially Netanyahu, can be trusted to take advantage of this moment in time to turn everything upside down, to explain that Olmert and Livni are out of touch with the people and dangerous and irrelevant, whereas he himself knows what is right for Israel. In any case, these days the headlines emerging from Netanyahu’s visit to New York, on the occasion of the UN General Assembly meeting, are more moderate, with Netanyahu saying he does not oppose a Palestinian state within borders that would serve Israel’s national interests. This way he presents a tough, but not fanatical, stance and neutralizes the new strategy of the political left.
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